Monday, November 10, 2008

Neutral Third Parties Help Keep Peace in Dividing Personal Belongings

For many families, cleaning out a loved one's home and personal belongings after a death can be an important part of the grieving and healing process. Holding treasured personal possessions and remembering good times can make this a time to celebrate a beloved family member's life and share family history with younger generations.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for all families. Distrust and jealousy feed claims of dishonesty and selfishness - tearing at families when they need each other the most. Why is it that family members lash out at each other with such bitterness over what appear to be such trivial issues?

What leads otherwise honest, caring and compassionate individuals to act with such total disregard for the feelings of those they love?

The stories of family rivalries abound. What was it that tore your family apart? A cookie jar? A candy dish? A hammer, tool belt or hunting rifle? Was it a refrigerator magnet? A lucky penny? A clock?

One potential cause of the problem lies in our time-honored tradition of selecting one person out of the family to have the role of administering the estate, whether as "trustee" of a living trust or as "personal representative" of a will. In years past, it was typically the oldest male of the family who held this role.

No matter who is chosen, having chosen someone upsets the balance of power in a family which is already struggling to reorganize its power structure after a death.

Take, for example, the resentment of a younger sibling who might see her older brother's authority as personal representative as an assertion of control and an attempt to replace her deceased father as the "head" of the family. She may object to her brother's otherwise fair and appropriate method of dividing personal property only because she resents his assertion of authority. On the other hand, he may feel unjustly accused of being unfair.

Reverse the situation (having chosen the youngest sibling as personal representative instead) and we now face possible jealousy and resentment from older siblings who believe the "baby" of the family to have been spoiled or "loved more" because she was the youngest. Older siblings may object to items she chooses for herself or her children because she always gets her way. Just like her brother in the scenerio above, she may feel unjustly accused of being unfair.

Our predeceasors tried to remedy this situation by naming a bank to serve as what was then commonly called "executor" of the estate. The theory, in part, was that the addition of a wise and neutral third party would help keep emotions and personal attacks in check. Attempts to keep adminstrative costs low have caused the use of banks to fall out of favor as bank fees rose - but the theory of a neutral third party still holds some merit.

In dividing personal property, informal mediation or simply guidance from a professional estate administrator might bring back a level of civility and order to the process while maintaining the status quo in the family power struggle. Depending upon the nature of the issues at hand, an appropriate neutral party might include an attorney, mediator or professional estate organizer.

For more information about informal mediation/professional estate administration services, email Jo Anne. To find out more about Michigan estate organization services, visit Estate Maintenance and Organization.

No comments: